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Monday, April 16, 2007


posted by on April 16 at 13:57 PM

The Race Beat, a book that purports to document the stories of the reporters who covered America’s civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, just won the Pulitzer Prize for history.

I reviewed this disappointing book for the Stranger’s book section a few weeks ago. Here’s what I wrote:

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation

by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

(Knopf) $30

Add to the growing list of civil rights surveys The Race Beat, which purports to tell the stories of the newsmen who chronicled the historic drama during the 1950s and ’60s. Given the media’s role in the civil rights struggle (indeed, it’s no stretch to say the movement would never have succeeded if front pages and TV screens hadn’t given us Emmett Till’s mangled face and Bull Connor’s police dogs), an account of the press is overdue. Unfortunately, this book does a lackluster job documenting the stories behind the news stories. And so, while we get perfunctory details about reporters, it’s still the legendary events themselves—the showdown in Little Rock, the disappearance of three voting-rights workers in Mississippi, and the Billy clubs in Selma—that provide this book’s energy.

Interestingly, though, by casting reporters as the heroes, the authors do manage to tweak one traditional reading of the civil rights story. Birmingham ‘63, with fire hoses blasting black protesters, has long been the era’s defining moment—raw hatred exposed. But in this telling, a different defining moment emerges: the white riot that struck the University of Mississippi in 1962. Here, with besieged reporters on the scene being bullied out of upholding the First Amendment—one reporter is murdered—mob rule routs federal troops and Mississippi’s delinquent governor thumbs his nose at the federal courts. Racism’s larger threat to America, the unraveling of the Constitution, is laid bare.

Despite today’s news, I stand by it. Yes, the scene at Ol Miss is riveting. And one thing I didn’t have room for in the review was to gush over some of the original reporting that co-author Gene Roberts relayed about the scene when Stokely Carmichael busted out the term “Black Power” for the first time. Indeed, as a young reporter, Roberts was on the scene during the 1966 march where tensions between MLK and Carmichael provided one of the most significant turning points in modern American history.

However, this book did not deserve the Pulitzer in History. It’s basically this: Lackluster biographies of reporters glued on top of famous events from the civil rights stories. The original reporting about the battles between integrationist and segregationist editors in the Southern press was fine, but hardly revelatory. And the early chapter on the black press (the first group to cover the emerging civil rights movement) is much-better researched and documented in a 1999 documentary called The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords.

One big problem with the book is this: The authors chose the admittedly important 1944 study by famed Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, as the leaping off point, and central metaphor, for their story. The monumental study helped inform the Brown v. Board of Ed decision and was prescient—predicting that the media would (and must) play a pivotal role in the civil rights cause.

However, the authors are so enamored and hung up on the significance of Mydral’s prediction and his study, that they keep circling back to it in heavy handed, clunky, and sophomoric ways.

For an example of a Pulitzer-worthy history book that deals with the story behind the story (that is: a book about reporters), see Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau, a great book about the small press corps in Vietnam in the early days of U.S. involvement.

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Pulitzer?!? I hardly know her!

Posted by rubyred | April 16, 2007 2:15 PM

Ok. First off: The Pulitzer in History almost NEVER, *EVER* goes to an outstanding work of history. It goes to a work of US HISTORY that confirms, rather than examines or challenges, our comfortable, settled preconceptions of this nation's history as a paragon of progress toward perfection (unless it goes to a military historian, in which case it is almost always anodyne and about WWII, the Civil War or the Revolution).

Don't believe me that the Pulitzer is awash in pap and mediocrity? Have a little gander at these past wonderous works:

2005: Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer (neo-con hack spews neo-con crap...)

2003: An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson (Hey -- it's WWII!!!!)

2001: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis (Look, Ma! It's the start of this America thing!)

1999: Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (Hey -- did any one give a thought to George Chauncey's "Gay New York?" I didn't think so...)

1998: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson (Hey, were progressing, dammit! Evolving!)

1997: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution by Jack N. Rakove (The Founding again! Who'd have guessed?)

1995: No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Hey -- didn't we do WWII already???)

'nuff said!

Posted by Jonathan | April 16, 2007 2:32 PM

Or perhaps put differently: It's the OSCAR of history writing. Almost never goes to the best, little indie book out there that shows real passion for the craft of history. Instead it is an award that the academy of big, bloated, bloviating media darlings pass back and forth among themselves.

Posted by Jonathan | April 16, 2007 2:34 PM

I guess you're the proverbial monkey at the typewriter -- getting something right every 20,000 pages.

Prochnau is a great journalist. You're not.

Posted by Still wondering | April 16, 2007 3:34 PM

Second that, Still Wondering.

At least you can sit back and enjoy the fact that you still have your opinion, Josh.

Posted by bunnyhead | April 16, 2007 3:43 PM

Oh please shut up, 4 & 5. If you so detest the Stranger, what the hell are you doing reading the Slog?

Some of us are trying to enjoy our lives here. Piss off.

Posted by Shutup | April 16, 2007 5:11 PM

jonathan knows of which he speaks.

Posted by Trevor | April 16, 2007 6:26 PM

"Trying to enjoy our lives"?

#6, you need to get out more.

Besides, without snide comments, what would Josh offer distinct from the Dem Party apparatus?

Posted by Gob grabber | April 16, 2007 6:30 PM

My favorite book about the role of the press in a pivotal historical moment: The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse's insightful and revelatory account of the press corps covering the 1972 presidential election. Sadly, it has been fated to stumble into eternity in the shadow of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. While Thompson's brilliant rant of a book had a much more visceral impact on me -- I read it when I was much younger -- I think Crouse's book may actually be more prescient, and important, in its fixation on the emergence of the modern day media star system. Compared to Thompson, Crouse will always be an afterthought, the other guy from Rolling Stone who wrote the other great book about the '72 campaign. And that is too bad.

Haven't ever read Prochnau, however. Guess I have to now.

Anyone read Prime Green, the new memoir by Robert Stone (who beats out Ian McEwan as my favorite novelist) about the 1960s? I highly recommend it.

Posted by Sandeep Kaushik | April 16, 2007 8:10 PM

And, on the subject of the history Pulitzers, a personal anecdote:

In 1993, I had the misfortune to take a history class with Bernard Bailyn. Bud, of course, has won two (yes, count them *TWO* Pulitzers).

Most of the class consisted of Bud's rants against the work other historians or scholars. Bud is nasty that way. But one rant stood out. That year, Bud's fury was particulary venomous against one specific scholar: Bob Fogel.

Why? I mean, I've met Fogel. He's a pretty nice guy. More devoted to his work than in playing academic politics. He's a really smart economic historian. He's a pretty generous in his support for students. And he's pretty old. Not the sort of guy that you would think would cause Bud to come down with a case of severe apoplexy.

*BUT* that year, in 1993, Fogel had the audacity (and I mean the *AUDACITY*) to win the Nobel Prize for his historical study of the economics of slavery in the US.

I remember it like it was yesterday: The week after the prize was announced, Bud came into the class, slammed Fogel's book down on the table and, with his face suffused with rage, screamed: "What's wrong with this book!? -- Why is it wrong??!!"

The real answer was pretty clear: A Nobel, any Nobel -- even the Nobel in economics -- trumps any number of Pulitzers.

Posted by Jonathan | April 17, 2007 7:56 AM

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